Virginia basketball, in national spotlight as No. 1 seed, turns focus to NCAA tournament opener

The players jumped from their seats and began jumping up and down in unison, the sound from the television screens at Kickback Jack’s, a Danville, Va., sports bar, drowned out by a “Hoos” chant.

But when the initial excitement died down moments later, and the Virginia men’s basketball team knew it had secured the final No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, senior Joe Harris had one question: “Who we got?”

The Cavaliers soon learned they would face No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina in an East Region round-of-64 matchup Friday in Raleigh, N.C. Coach Tony Bennett then reminded his team what this day felt like a year ago, when Virginia watched its bubble burst on Selection Sunday.

He called the message “a reality check” Monday, and it made his players appreciate the heights this program has reached of late even more.

“Last year, I was ready to hear our name and it didn’t come,” forward Akil Mitchell said Monday. It was nerve-wracking. It was an awful experience last year. This year was just the complete opposite. It was awesome. . . . This year it was like, ‘Are we a 1 seed, are we a 2 seed?’ Let’s just find out where we’re gonna go before this snow gets us stuck in Danville.”

Sophomore Malcolm Brogdon called the No. 1 seed “shocking,” but it also brought about a new challenge. After operating under the national radar for so long this season, the Cavaliers are suddenly a tournament favorite.

So while many fans continue to revel over a historic three weeks — No. 3 Virginia won its first outright ACC regular season title since 1981, captured its first ACC tournament title since 1976 and earned a No. 1 seed for the first time in 31 years — the team had already begun to turn its focus toward what lies ahead.

Virginia has made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament just once since 1995, and the Cavaliers would like to avoid another early exit. Two years ago when it went dancing as a No. 7 seed under Bennett, Virginia was blown out by No. 10 seed Florida, 71-45.

That contest, though, came under far different circumstances than this year. A wave of injuries left the Cavaliers with just seven scholarship players against the Gators.

Mitchell, Harris and forward Darion Atkins are the only three players on this year’s roster to have played in that 2012 game. As Bennett put it: “We’re at a different place now.”

“They were a very, very good team we were playing against, and we were limping our way into the tournament that time and now we have a lot of momentum we’re riding,” Harris said. “I don’t feel we feel too much pressure. . . . We’re definitely not overlooking our first-round game.”

The Cavaliers have won 16 of their past 17 games, and the enthusiasm surrounding the team has built with each win.

Thousands of orange-clad fans drove to Greensboro Coliseum to witness Virginia beat Duke, 72-63, Sunday in the ACC tournament final and many of them showed up in Danville after word leaked the Cavaliers would be watching the selection show at a sports bar. Brogdon said another 25 people were waiting on the loading dock of John Paul Jones Arena for the team’s bus when it arrived in Charlottesville late Sunday night.

But Mitchell quickly shook his head, and answered without hesitatation Monday when asked if all this newfound attention might get to Virginia’s head.

“You don’t know Coach Bennett then,” Mitchell said. “You’re asking about humility and that’s one of our pillars. That’s what we hang our hat on. It’s necessary for us to be successful. . . . It’s cool to see your school in prime time, honestly. It’s nice to look at and to think about, but at the end of the day, how much longer are they gonna be talking about us if we lose?”

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